National News

Political Arrests, Yes. Gang Violence, No. What It Takes to Get Asylum in the U.S.

Posted May 2, 2018 10:36 p.m. EDT
Updated May 2, 2018 10:40 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — A caravan of migrants from Central America that recently trekked to the California border has grabbed the attention of the news media and President Donald Trump. Of the 300 or so who made it to Tijuana, Mexico, at least 150 are expected to claim asylum in the United States.

“The likelihood of them getting asylum is very minimal,” said Thomas Haine, a former trial attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement who is now in private practice in San Diego.

The biggest hurdle for the migrants is convincing an immigration judge that they belong to a particular social group — gay, transgender or a child soldier, for example — that could entitle them to asylum, since they cannot argue that they face persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion.

Generally, Central American migrants are fleeing gangs, drug cartels or other violence. But fearing for one’s life isn’t reason enough for asylum, Haine said.

Border inspectors late Monday began allowing some asylum-seekers into the country. Once processed at a port of entry, they will be transferred to a detention facility where they must pass a “credible-fear” interview.

Those who clear the first hurdle will be referred to an immigration court for hearings that can stretch for months or longer. (Those who fail can be deported.)

“In the courts is where it gets murky,” said Devin T. Theriot-Orr, who teaches immigration law at Seattle University. “It’s like rolling the dice.”

Asylum cases filed by Latin Americans are treated differently than similar cases from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, he said. U.S. authorities fear that granting asylum to migrants from nearby countries will encourage more to come.

More than 75 percent of asylum cases that came before the immigration court from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were denied between the 2012 and 2017 fiscal years, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That compares with 17 percent for Ethiopia, 20 percent for China and 25 percent for Nepal.

A sample of asylum cases, granted and denied, reflects some of the inconsistencies.

Joël Kangudi, 34, Congo

Kangudi, an information technology technician and gospel singer, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after he released a song on YouTube criticizing human rights abuses by the government. Authorities in Congo arrested Kangudi, locked him up and tortured him. He walked across a bridge to El Paso, Texas, in 2017, then spent four months in a detention center in New Mexico before gaining asylum.

M.P., 30s, El Salvador

M.P. and her son, J.G., fled El Salvador in 2014 after the MS-13 gang tried several times to recruit him and vowed to kill the teenager’s mother unless he joined. They entered the United States illegally and applied for asylum in 2016 in Utah. A judge denied her request in March on the grounds that claims of gang violence do not qualify for asylum, but M.P. is appealing. She is unable to work and is afraid she could be deported at any moment, said her lawyer, Christina Brown of Denver. Her son is part of the same application. (They did not want be identified because they feared it could jeopardize their case.)

Cristina Bebawy, 62, Morocco

Moroccan police officers raided the apartment where Bebawy, a teacher, participated in Bible studies in 2009. She and other women there were arrested and thrown into jail, where they were forced to undress and perform sex acts. The officers videotaped and photographed the acts, then used the footage to justify arresting the women multiple times. Bebawy received asylum after traveling to the United States on a tourist visa in 2013, according to her lawyer, Christopher Casazza, in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Che Eric Sama, 28, Cameroon

Sama, a university student from Cameroon, applied for asylum after fleeing first to Nigeria, then traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border in 2015. He said he had been beaten by an anti-gay group for posting a statement in a student publication in support of gay rights in Cameroon, where same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by prison. Sama, who claimed he faced the possibility of state-sanctioned harm if he was forced to return to Cameroon, had his request for asylum denied, in addition to his appeal in April. He has been deported.

Yomara Rivas, 27, Guatemala

Rivas fled to the United States with her daughter, then 4, in 2014, making a perilous trek from Guatemala to the Arizona desert. Rivas, who was born into an impoverished family of coffee pickers, said in her asylum request that her boyfriend had become physically abusive and tried to strangle their daughter. Rivas was granted asylum before Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, signaled that he opposes giving asylum to domestic violence victims.

M.C., Honduras

M.C. was detained in South Texas in 2015 and requested asylum as a victim of domestic violence. She passed her credible-fear interview but then remained in detention for nine months. A judge rejected her application, contending that the Honduran government was instituting policies to address domestic violence. She filed an appeal, which was denied on similar grounds, and is appealing again. The board of immigration appeals sent the case back to the same judge, who has since retired. Her case may be heard again in 2020. M.C. cannot work and is living with her child in New Jersey, relying on family to support them. (She asked not to be identified to avoid jeopardizing her case.)

Zahid Ali, 26, Pakistan

Ali was a student activist who supported autonomy for Balochistan, a region of Pakistan that some residents believe was improperly annexed in 1968. He is also a Zikri Muslim, a religious minority targeted by fundamentalists because its members do not adhere to the prophecy of Muhammad. Ali was interrogated and beaten for his political and religious beliefs. He testified during his asylum interview that returning to his homeland would be life-threatening. He was granted asylum in 2017 and was recently accepted to Columbia University. “The asylum process is extremely difficult,” Ali said, comparing it to “crossing the Bridge of Siraat,” an Islamic belief that the span must be traversed to enter paradise. “The Bridge of Siraat is as thin as the strand of hair.”